The North Eastern states of India might just be one of the last great unexplored frontiers for tourism. Disconnected from the bulk of the country all but for a tiny strip of land, affectionately called the ‘chicken’s neck’, it’s a totally different world to “conventional” India (if there ever were such a thing). Burmese, Bhutanese(?), Nepali and Tibetan influence all play out in tribal cultures, religions, human aesthetic and local foods.
So, after a night dodging the amphetamine fuelled Nepali lorry drivers to reach the Indian border I was stoked for a real adventure – circumnavigating the lost states that so few tourists ever make it to.
I didn’t realize then what the North East would mean for me. It wouldnt just challenge me, but give me the time and conditions to challenge myself. Long days of riding. Few distractions. Plenty of time to think. There were days where I wondered whether I would emerge stronger or lose myself along the way.
Perhaps more importantly, it was a time for hauling ass. The accidental forty-one days spent in Nepal (I was only meant to be passing through, after all…) wouldn’t catch themselves up. Make hay while the sun shines, Tom – the good roads wouldn’t last forever.
It was good to be back in Mother India.
And she seemed happy to have me – rolling out miles of velvet smooth highway ahead, meandering softly through endless tea plantations before talking me up into the hills once more on an awesome stretch of road that’s interwoven with tiny toy train tracks of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway – all the way to it’s namesake town.
For many, comfortable Darjeeling is the end of the line. A place to stay in beautiful British Raj apartments and drink delicate afternoon tea, from the first pick – whatever that means. For me, it was the gateway to bigger things, Sikkim. It remained a kingdom until 1975 when it was assimilated as and Indian state, and still stamps your passport in and out at Rangpo, despite not being an international border. Of course, the British had left their mucky fingerprints over this part of the world too, with it being an old leg of the silk route for trading with Tibet. I had only one goal in mind when looking at the state; Zuluk, right at the border with China. It’s a nothing town, if a little lofty (around 4000m), but it’s accessed on either side by a dizzying set of hairpins, famed as the Zuluk loops. They were one of only a handful of riding objectives I’d planned from back home, and now I was on their doorstep.
During my first excursion, heading directly to the loops, I made an accidental discovery of the only corkscrew I’d seen outside a multi-storey car park. Happy realization had dawned as I banked past 360 and showed no sign of stopping. It was totally unnecessary, but it was fucking awesome, and elevated the whole days ride from great to perfect. Unfortunately the same couldn’t be said for the checkpoint at Rongli, where I was told they couldn’t issue permits and would have to get to Gangtok in the failing light, and the permit office was closed by the time I reached there in late evening.
Nevertheless, in the morning I was refused for the same things that had already got me off the hook so many times in India. Eyes too blue and skin too white. The caucasian condition. Even healthy bribes wouldn’t loosen the permit stamp.
It was difficult to be disheartened when the riding there, and another detour via Darjeeling and Mirik, were simply spectacular riding roads in themselves. The atmospheric wintry nights and misty mornings would create winding, diaphanous tunnels out of the tarmac, thick fingers of fog rifling through the pine branches overhead. Clear golden sunsets and pink cherry blossoms dropping over tea plantations in the afternoon. The tyres had hummed happy approval for two days straight.
No matter how high your spirits, there’s nothing like a shitty hotel, in the middle of somewhere shitty and full of mosquitos and a fan that doesn’t work, to somber the mood. I was in Siliguri, in room that was so dramatically sad even the most depressed travelling salesmen would consider autoerotic suicide in it’s lonely confines beneath them. Fortunately I had an early morning, and four hours wasn’t enough to have nightmares about all the ghosts and fluids I might could have been sleeping on.
4am is always bitter sweet. I feel like a rockstar for having managed to leave bed so early, but it’s also bone shatteringly tiring and the world is cold. And, pout. But still, pulling 10+ hours of riding I’d prefer to leave in the dark than finish in it. Mornings, even in India, hold a surreal peace and, maybe more practically, fewer rampaging truckers and human chicken coop taxis. They’ve generally all gone to bed or crashed (not joking) by morning. As dawn struck, it was again accompanied by fog, cappuccino thick and frothing through the vines and jungle which welcomed me into Assam, the beginning of the tribal north east, before being burned away by a bauble red late morning sun.
I’d been riding for hours and, as my bum and my brain numbed in perfect unison, began to get distracted – watching all the red flecked cheggle sparrows and horn billed brunts take off from the fields and soar through the sky. I even noticed that tilting my head just a little to either side distorted the wind nose so it sounded like the dulcet tones of a radio four talkshow being played underwater. I could also hold my breath for over a minute. Fatigue eh? Makes us all play silly games. I swerved a few times, but didn’t die.
Eleven non-stop riding, food neglecting, chai drinking hours later I reached Guwahati, flung the plastic kneepads across another lonely hotel floor and munched appetitelessly through a square meal. The ride had been long but I’d do it all again tomorrow, taking the smaller roads from Guwahati to Shillong, capital of Meghalaya state. You could clear the distance in just a couple of hours on the main highway, but the romantic notion of exploration dragged me deep into the jungle where I only saw another three or four cars all day. One of them, a taxi, had to carry my big rucksack to me after the bungees came undone, it went rolling down the road and I hadn’t noticed. Tiredness strikes again. I intentionally didn’t look at my laptop for a week afterwards (and yeah, it was smashed to shit).
I struck lucky finding a hostel in Shillong for three hundred rupees a night. The place was still under construction, but the combined families which ran the place we’re friendly, helpful and full of local knowledge. I also had a Kevin, basically a surrogate little brother come entrepreneurial tour guide, who’d be rewarded with free meals for his choice of restaurant – effectively doubling the hostel costs. He’d request we drive by the school so the girls can see him on the back of a foreigners motorbike and swoon over him the next day. Of course I had no problems abetting his posturing, picking up girls is a bread and butter entitlement of chauvanistic motorbikers. I can respect that.
Cherrapunji, a few hours south of Shillong, clearly didn’t get the memo sent to the North East. “Don’t look like the Yorkshire Moors” the memo had said – yet here I was, standing on the moors, which, hilariously, also happens to be the wettest place on the planet (other than in the sea). This is fortunate, because there’s literally nothing else there apart from an inordinate amount of waterfalls cascading from the plateau town down into surrounding valleys. I visited in dry season, which is spectacularly less spectacular.
I was following a tip off for a hidden village, only accessable by a long, steep jungle staircase. It’s home to the only double decker root bridge in Meghalaya, a state that’s famous for the living bridges it’s inhabitants started weaving together out of rubber fig tree roots hundreds of years ago. The 3’500 steps successfully deter many tourists that the root bridge would otherwise swarm with, as climbing back out is a wonderful lesson in self flagellation.
The top of this rumbling Jumanji-esque staircase is not the kind of place you want to to find yourself if you have a fever with all the malign clockwork predictability of Malaria (no prophylaxis for me!). I was particularly disorientated and weak in the jungle humidity, and really didn’t like the notion of climbing back out to the bike if things got much worse. Descending was one of the many hair-trigger, go-either-way decisions I seem to comfortably make each week, but thankfully I did descend. Nongriat is a jungle paradise.
Suspension bridges over river canyons, big rocks for jumping into plunge pools, bamboo shacks, weird creatures and bonfires with other young foreigners exploring the area. It was a little vale of tranquility, and I felt refreshed from the two nights I stayed down there, along with a German and Austrian couple and an English guy with a compulsion for bugs and a disposition pretty close to Sheldon from the big bang theory. I once caught him frozen in a doorway “just thinking about maths”. Adorable.
But I had to climb out if I wanted to get some blood work done before Hornbill – the tribal showcase festival in Nagaland we’d all arranged to meet up at. Thankfully the bloods were clean, and the inexplicable cyclic fever responded well to five days of general antibiotics. I suspected the long days of riding and the chai instead of meals was playing some part in my mysterious illness, exhausting my immune system and exposing me to infections. The riding had also fouled both plugs and burned out a battery – something that young Kevin saw as a sign I should stay in Shillong for longer (forever). I saw it as a sign that tomorrow would bring another 4am start to reach the headhunter state of Nagaland.
I’d hoped all my shenanigans we’re done for the day/week/month but fate, it would seem, was against me. It was a 12 hour ride, and one that would see me both lose my brand new tent and break my big toe in a crash. Serves me right for galliantly revelling in the attention of locals when they realised I was travelling solo, or “one-piece” I came to call it (after the single cigarettes you can buy at every small kiosk) by motorbike. One man asked where I carry my gun so I fake judo chopped him. “No Gun,” I’d smile, “these are my guns”.
The first mishap occured somewhere while riding, and I had literally no idea where to start looking for the tent. There had been big, unavoidable potholes to dislodge the bungees (that thanks to my laptop I knew were as reliable as a granny knot in a cheese string), all along my route.
The second happened when, on dusty dirty roads that reminded me a lot of Ladakh, all my traction suddenly disappeared sideways during a short wet patch. I’d dropped my left foot to speedway slide that son-of-a-bitch (this actually works maybe a cheeky third of the time), but my leg folded into the mud and the bike went down hard on top of me. The rack could’ve broken my shin, judging by the lump that followed, so a broken, purplish toe wasn’t too bad. My leather jacket was also pretty muddy, so I’d have to wear it in the rain or something.
Luckily, the gear and brake levers were all intact if a little bent up, as it would have been a simply lovely 40km push to Kohima otherwise. Coincidentally a broken toe does make gear changes a little spicy, but there was no way I was going to roll to Kohima in first gear like some sort of amateur. No, I’d limp into the next grungy, sexcretion stained basement hotel like a real man, and if anyone asked about it I’d say something cool. No one asked about it.
So – I left the prison hotel for a look around the swinging night markets that enveloped the main Kohima street, pantomime limp in tow (say something cool!). I was beginning to get adjusted to spending time in really depressing hotel rooms, but I was thankful to bump into a fellow traveller from Shillong, Jéan, who would turn into a good albeit psychotic friend in the North East. We agreed to explore the festival grounds tomorrow.
I was ready for some culture.
And by that, I mean I was ready to drink my bikes weight in local Rice Beer.